Spring’s Sprouts of Environmental Innovation!

Apr 04 2013

Spring is here, people!

Spring

I love this time of year! It reminds me that there is always an opportunity for a fresh start. After a long winter, it can be hard to be optimistic about what is to come. Then, all of a sudden, flowers everywhere!  As the snow melts, you begin to feel wholly optimistic about what is to come, and it makes all your hard work feel all the more worth it. Just as the flowers and plants grow, so do good ideas, and I want to highlight some of the best business innovations that have been developed to help create a more healthy environment in the future.

Spring Blossoms!

Spring Blossoms!

Pangaea is passionate about developing and highlighting solutions for plastic pollution problems in our water ways.We want to support  forward thinking organizations responsible for developing alternatives that are not only useful, but powerful environmental and economic tools.

There are many ways to approach the plastics pollution problem. Some choose to  approach the issue by developing solutions to remove the plastic from our waters. Others want to find ways to reduce the use of plastics, so that we stop pollution in our oceans at its source.

One source of the plastic pollution in the oceans comes from packaging materials. Have you ever purchased a new TV or refrigerator, and noticed what else comes along with it? A big cardboard box, a couple of pieces of plastic framing , styrofoam, maybe even some plastic bags filled with air! All of that material is used a single time, for a single product. What a waste!

Eben Bayer and Gavin MacIntyre, students at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York,decided to take a fresh look at traditional packing materials. Inspired by the incredible bonding power of mycelium (the vegetative part of a fungus), the two invented a unique process which binds insulating particles to create packaging materials that are a natural and biodegradable. Natural packaging, straight from a mushroom source-now that’s fresh innovation.

The innovators have since developed there own company, Ecovative Design. To learn how Eben and Gavin came across the idea of creating mushroom

From their website www.ecovativedesign.com

From their website www.ecovativedesign.com

packaging, check out their website here.They clearly have the motivation to design a diverse array of products, including insulation and acoustical tiles (used in music studios), foams used for building cars, and coolest of all, surfboards.

I had the opportunity to talk with Sam Harrington of Ecovative Design last week, after watching the Sam’s  TedX talk on Facebook. I asked him a couple of questions about the company’s development, and how it contributes towards depleting the plastic pollution cycle.

Sam Harrington-on Ultra Rapid Renewables-TEDX Grand Rapids

Pangaea Explorations:What inspired the creation of mushroom based packaging materials?

Sam Harrington: Eben Bayer grew up on a farm in rural Vermont. One of his jobs was to shovel wood chips into the maple syrup boiler. He noticed little white strands of mycelium (mushroom “roots”) growing on the wood chips and gluing them together into clumps. While at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Eben teamed up with a class mate, Gavin McIntyre to use this biological glue to grow structural materials. The proposed the material first as a rigid insulation board in a class called Inventors Studio taught by Burt Swersey. After growing the first prototypes under their beds, they realized that this material had world changing applications for many industries from building materials to packaging and more.

You can read more about Ecovative’s history here:

http://www.ecovativedesign.com/about-ecovative/history/

PE: How long did it take for your company to evolve?

SH: Ecovative was founded in 2007, although the fungi we work with have evolved for millions of years.

Is it nature, or is it art? Photo of mycelium growing in a petri dish. Bob Blaylock Photo.

Is it nature, or is it art? Photo of mycelium growing in a petri dish. Bob Blaylock Photo.

PE:What were your biggest challenges or obstacles you faced during the creation of your product?

SH:Our initial focus was on rigid board insulation to replace the blue or pink foams used in residential and commercial construction. Testing and code compliance can be very costly and can take a year or more, and we’d be going up against an industry with huge economies of scale. We decided early on to pivot and focus on launching Mushroom® Packaging. In many ways, this is an even bigger environmental win since this packaging is typically only used for a few weeks. Having a home compostable package is a big win over Styrofoam packaging that will last essentially forever.

PE: Can your materials be prepared in any shape for packaging?

EB: Pretty much. As with any manufacturing methodology, there are some geometric constraints. Our molding system is different from that of plastic foam, and our talented design team is always able to come up with a great solution. We can’t yet make very thin things like cups or to-go containers, but we’re working on that.

PE :Do your products get thrown away with household waste, or must they be composted?

SH: We certainly encourage people to compost whenever they can. If you have a garden, Mushroom Packaging makes for excellent mulch too. If your city doesn’t have compost collection, and you aren’t able to compost at home, you can send this packaging to a landfill. At least it still has all the beginning-of-life environmental benefits.

PE: Does your packaging pricing match that of plastic or cardboard alternatives?

SH: Yes, Mushroom® Packaging can match the cost of common plastic foams like EPS, EPP and EPE. For most of our customers we’ve been able to meet or exceed their performance requirements, match their cost, and deliver a packaging material that is far better for our planet. It’s really a win-win-win. Of course for this custom packaging, the pricing always depends on the technical requirements and our customer’s design wishes.

PE:What advice would you have for young entrepreneurs looking to create and market sustainable and environmentally friendly product alternatives?

Gavin McIntyre and Eben Bayer. I think they say it all. Chris Cisman image from wired.co.uk online.

Gavin McIntyre and Eben Bayer. I think they say it all. Chris Cisman image from wired.co.uk online.

SH: If you want to make a product that goes mainstream, and isn’t just for people like you who are the most environmentally conscious, it has to be cost neutral. It’s important to find ways to make your product cost and perform about the same as what exists today, and then people will widely switch due to the environmental benefits. Getting people to switch from what they’re comfortable with and used to can be a big hurdle, so it’s important to not throw up any other obstacles if at all possible.

PE:What do you think are the most exciting advances in pollution reduction right now? Are there any other companies you are inspired by?

SH: We’re inspired by all of our packaging customers! We hear over and over again that companies are setting these wildly bold goals of ditching plastic foam, or going for 100% compostable packaging. They set these goals not even knowing if they’re possible to achieve… and then they go out and find materials like Mushroom® Packaging to make these aspirations a reality.

Now I have even more of an excuse to drink wine. Ecovative design's wine shipper material, made with the help of mycelium.

Now I have even more of an excuse to drink wine. Ecovative design's wine shipper material, made with the help of mycelium.

I am really inspired by these men, and am given hope that there are young innovators who are focused on making sustainable solutions a reality, even in a single use society.  I am very excited to share their cool ideas with you as part of the One Water Festivals this summer!

More fresh ideas to come! Thanks for taking the time to read the blog. If you have any suggestions for companies or organizations to highlight, send me an email at asta@panexplore.com!